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Numbers: Episcopalians who join the ordinariate, Catholics who become Episcopalians

Numbers: Episcopalians who join the ordinariate, Catholics who become Episcopalians

In the last month, I have prepared three different Episcopal clients to speak to reporters about the advent of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, through which disaffected Anglicans can join the Roman Catholic Church while continuing to use an Anglican rite of worship. This story has appeared in major newspaper across the country, often accompanied by commentary about the Vatican’s bold move against the theologically liberal Episcopal Church.

I am still trying to figure out what all of the fuss is about.

Thus far, 100 priests and fewer than 1,400 people in 22 church communities have expressed an interest in the ordinariate. Gather them all in Washington National Cathedral, and the place isn’t half full. Only six of these 22 communities have more than 70 members, which suggests that their longterm viability may be an issue. And there is no evidence to suggest that these small congregations are the thin edge of an as yet invisible wedge.

The prominence the ordinariate has achieved in the media has unsettled some Episcopalians. As a denomination, we are still recovering from several years worth of news stories in which the departure of some three percent of our membership for a more theologically conservative body was variously described as a “schism” or an “exodus.”

In part to bolster Episcopal spirits, and in part to provide reporters with some sense of perspective, I thought it might be helpful to take a look at some numbers. According to the 2004 U. S. Congregational Life Survey—which I believe is the most recent one available—11.7 percent of Episcopalians were formerly Roman Catholic.

The Episcopal Church had slightly fewer than 2,248,000 members in 2004, indicating that not quite 263,000 of its members were former Catholics.

The Episcopal Church has shrunk some in the last seven years, and now has about two million members. Assuming that the percentage of former Catholics in the Episcopal Church has remained constant (I think it is likely to have risen, but that’s an essay for another day), there are currently some 228,000 former Roman Catholics in the Episcopal Church.

There may be a good reason that the departure of fewer than 1,500 Episcopalians to the Roman Catholic ordinariate deserves extensive media coverage while the departure in recent years of more than 225,000 Roman Catholics to join the Episcopal Church goes unmentioned even in stories about the creation of the ordinariate, but I don’t know what it is.

The stories on the ordinariate also report that as many as 100 priests—many of whom may be Episcopalians—have also applied to join the ordinariate. Is this evidence that the Catholic Church is winning priests from the Episcopal tradition? It reads that way, unless one knows, thanks to the Church Pension Group, that 432 living Episcopal priests have been received from the Roman Catholic Church.

There is no reason to fear the ordinariate. Its creation is among the most overhyped religion stories of recent years. Some people swim the Tiber. Some swim the Thames. Media coverage suggests that reporters pay little attention until the Vatican tells them it’s a big story.


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Hudson Barton

It seems to me that although TEC individual dioceses might survive (or even thrive), the collapse of TEC as we know it is inevitable. Also, lest anyone should think that ACNA is thriving, it should be pointed out that its organic growth rate is barely more than zero; most or all of it is coming from transfers. This begs two questions:

1. What will happen to ACNA once the exodus from TEC subsides?

2. Is ACNA compromising its standards (such as they are) in order to accommodate incoming Episcopalians?

Bill Dilworth

Juan, there have been a few married ex-Anglican priests in the RCC for a while now, thanks to the Pastoral Providion that resulted in the foundation of Anglican Use parishes in 1980. The presence of married priests may not be really as significant as it might seem at first because future ordinands in the Ordinariate will have to be celibate, I believe. In other words, as soon as this first generation of converts dies off the Ordinariate will start to look like the rest of the RCC as far as its clergy is concerned.

Juan Oliver

One significant aspect of the ordinariate IMO, is that The Catholic Church now officially has western-rite MARRIED PRIESTS. This is –from the point of view of the development of the priesthood in the RCC– a step forward, creating a “parallel development” ambit where something new may be tried. Of course, the dark lining is that these married priests are unlikely to help Rome move much forward…

George Clifford

Interest in the Roman Catholic ordinariate is a red herring. We Episcopalians find this non-issue, a perspective that your statistics confirm, easier to discuss and, sadly, more interesting than focusing on real mission. People who leave TEC for the Roman Catholic Church are not abandoning Christianity; they’re simply moving to another branch. Spiritual journeys often lead people to make similar moves. The real tragedy is that we fail to engage in mission with the same vigor and interest with which we experience angst over this inconsequential event.

C. Wingate

Jim, I can understand your sentiments here, and I agree that in exactly the way you discuss, it is overhyped. Some of this is probably because the “anything that hurts ECUSA favors us” schismatics and triumphalist trad Catholics push it; some of it is probably because a lot of the press don’t understand the continuing world well enough to understand that most of those joining aren’t actually Episcopalians. Perhaps some small part reflects your personal failings as a press officer (just joking).

But it is news. As far as I know, it is unprecedented for Rome to absorb a group of Protestants in this manner.

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